Hackers Get Social at GitHub's Open-Source Assembly Line

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Hackers Get Social at GitHub's Open-Source Assembly Line Hackers Get Social at GitHub's Open-Source Assembly Line
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Hackers Get Social at GitHub's Open-Source Assembly Line

by Tim Fernholz

December 11, 2011


What is the internet?

According to Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, it’s not a thing, it’s a philosophy. Writing earlier this week, Ito looked back to the earliest days of the internet, when architects attempted to establish a system of uniform standards for their fledgling network in a contest between a bureaucratic standards-organizing body and “a loosely organized group of researchers and entrepreneurs.”

The hackers won with the credo “rough consensus and running code,” establishing the basic rules of the internet we know today. “It was the triumph of distributed innovation over centralized innovation,” Ito concludes.

Today, that spirit is carried on at GOOD Company finalist GitHub, which provides the tools and venue for software developers to collaborate on projects. GitHub, the world’s single largest repository of code, came about in 2007 when a group of engineers wanted to share code over the internet and had to build their own solution.

Based on Git, a program developed by software pioneer Linus Torvalds that makes it easier for multiple developers to work on a single code project, GitHub adds a layer of collaborative tools and stores everything securely online, so developers can access from the next room or the next continent. “The distributed part is the cool futuristic part of GitHub,” co-founder and CEO Chris Wanstrath says. “All you have to do is put your code up there and we’ll do the rest.”

But GitHub has become much more than a place for software developers to collaborate effectively. It’s also helped facilitate the growth of open source code: computer software that anyone can learn use and modify, thus speeding iteration and innovation. Anyone can sign up to use GitHub for free as long as they keep their code open, and the company has opened much of its own code as well. You only pay for GitHub when you want to work on projects privately.

Even companies that want to protect their proprietary software—Twitter, Facebook, Blizzard Entertainment, and Etsy, to name a few—use GitHub to perform public collaborations, either subjecting their code to improvement from a community of smart developers or making available key tools that allow outside developers to build add-ons to their projects. These add-ons, like the games that people play on Facebook or applications that people use to view Twitter, help increase the value of the original product. “What I really love about GitHub is we’re pushing that into a lot of corporations,” Wanstrath says. “There are people who are doing open-source in their free time or at work, and saying they want to work on their company’s software the same way.”

But GitHub’s biggest innovation may be what it’s learning from social media—the company’s tagline, after all, is "social coding," and it's not all business at headquarters, which hosts coder meet-ups and has a popular mascot in the oft-changing Octocat.  “The whole internet is evolving and maturing, we can take ideas from Facebook that help bring friends and families together, and use that on collaboration,” Wanstrath says.

All of the 1.2 million developers who use GitHub have their own profile pages that track their collaborations and facilitate discussions about projects. Coders treat their profiles as resumes, demonstrating their past work to potential employers and co-founders. The company is developing new work processes for the 21st century, as software becomes an increasingly important part of every business. “We built GitHub to make it easier for us to work on open-source with one another," Wanstrath says. "Sometimes I think we’ve done too good of a job: They’re getting too many contributions; another inbox, like their e-mail box, that’s never-ending." “Now it’s like, how do we make GitHub’s interface better to deal with this massive number?”

If the assembly line helped define the industrial revolution a century ago, GitHub’s virtual collaboration arena could become the way we talk about the work processes of the information revolution.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user tollmantim

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